I have had several discussions with people who identify as liberal/progressive or socialist on the subject of private property rights and the concept of ownership. A common argument I hear is that of course we can own things and have stuff, but money is not private property because we work for the common good of the economy. When people work it is so that they can contribute towards the goal of keeping the community. This leads me to ask a few questions.
What can anyone truly own?
What is happening when we work?
What does it mean to own things?
How can you tell if you own something?
Personal property can mostly be put into three main categories, time, talent and treasure. This is not an original idea. I have seen personal property described this way in many different writings. Let’s go through them one at a time.
Time. A person has a life span of roughly 80 years on average. We can break this up any way we choose, decades, years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. These increments of time belong to the individual living them. When someone says they don’t have time for something it means that the benefit gained from spending the moments necessary to preform whatever task is being asked is less valuable than moments themselves. Time, in effect, becomes the currency by which we live our lives and for this reason is probably the most valuable thing we own. Time cannot be taken away without the consent of the individual. In the summation of time are the moments that make up one’s life. We own our time.
Talent. Everyone is born with natural talents. Some people can sing, others may have a knack for math, etc… These belong to the person with the talent. If we don’t want to sing or do math we don’t have to. The thoughts in our head might be considered talent, when we use them to solve an equation or write a new song, or even complain about a bad movie. Talent is wrapped up in the things we can do, and the things we can think. Talent could also be considered our natural currency. We own our talents.
Treasure. This branch of ownership is different in that we are not born with it. Treasure encompasses what we acquire while we are alive. Treasure can be made, won or traded, it’s our stuff basically. A house, car, groceries, money, etc… Beyond this, we own things we make if we own the materials the new thing came from. For instance, if I own a loaf of bread, a jar of jelly, and a jar of peanut butter, and I endeavor to make a sandwich, I also own the sandwich. How does one own things that they are not born with? A great question. The answer is that we trade our natural currency, time and talents, for things we want or need. This is done through a process called work. Logic follows that if we own our time and talent, we also own the things we trade them for.
So what is happening when we work? Work is a voluntary exchange between two people whereby both parties benefit. For instance, If one person has an idea for a business and he asks another person work for him, what he is actually doing is requesting to trade someone’s time and talent in exchange for money. The business owner views this as a good trade because he gains more in production than it costs to pay the person. The person trading his time and talent views this as a good trade because the money received in trade is more valuable to him than the time he used to get it. Money, then, is the physical representation of our time and talents. Logic follows that we own our money and the business owner would own the fruits of our labor.
We can tell that we own things by a few simple tests. If you own something, you can sell it, hold it (not use), rent it, use it, let others use it or destroy it. I’m sure anyone could think of many other tests of ownership, but this post is long enough already. Let’s use an example for illustration. I have a couch in my family room that I own. If I choose I could sell the couch and would violate no one else’s rights, I could sit on it, not sit on it, I could let my friend sit on it, I could rent it to my friend for a party, I could take it out to the backyard and destroy it with an axe. I could do any and all of these things without physically harming anyone else or their stuff, therefor I own that couch. This test works with anything that you think you own from simple things like your food to more complicated things like your body.
Of course what we choose to do with our personal property can have adverse effects on the people around us, so while we might be perfectly within our rights to destroy that couch, we must always be aware that others also have the same rights and could refuse to let us sit on theirs.
At this point the smart reader might ask “If I own my stuff, why can the government tell me what I can and can’t do with it? That is a question that is bigger than one blog. I may try to tackle that in parts in later posts, but this was was long enough for now.